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“Maverick” Go-Go Symphony Merges Classical and DC Dance Beat
When the new Go-Go Symphony ensemble played at the National Mall on June 30, people, “…danced, bounced their heads, tapped/clapped their hands,” according to audience member Carol Young. That is because composer/conductor Liza Figueroa Kravinsky, who founded the group, decided to try mixing Washington DC’s go-go beat with classical music. The result – a thunderous percussive symphony that people can dance to.
Go-go music is a sub genre of funk that has been extremely popular in the Washington, DC area since the 1970′s, especially with African Americans. Its main feature is live funky polyrhythm — endless amounts of it — with drums, congas, cowbells, timbales, rototoms, and tambourines. It also uses improvisation and audience call and response. The beat never stops during a show; one song just morphs into the next.
Kravinsky founded the ensemble because she wasn’t sure how technically capable other orchestras would be of playing her polyrhythmic idea. Ideally, the Go-Go Symphony would be played by a full blown symphony orchestra. More often, a more compact ensemble will play it in smaller venues.
This is not the first time a classical orchestra has played go-go music. On September 4, 2011 the National Symphony Orchestra invited go-go inventor Chuck Brown to star in a pops concert featuring his music at the West Lawn of the U.S. Capital. Kravinsky attended that concert to see if her idea might work. She observed, “The fans were ready to dance and clap even before the orchestra started playing. Then the music began — first with a melody; and then with the beat the crowd had been aching for. They cheered.”
“I can’t believe the orchestra is playing go-go! I can’t believe the orchestra is playing go-go!” a woman beside her kept repeating in awe. She was verbalizing the thoughts and feelings Kravinsky sensed in the audience. “That confirmed my instincts for this project,” she said.
Although the go-go fans were excited and receptive, Kravinsky was a little more critical of the NSO’s performance. “To tell you the truth, I appreciated the National Symphony Orchestra’s gesture, but they didn’t quite get the feel of the beat,” she recalled, “So I am learning to work with the only musicians who know the feel – go-go musicians from the DC neighborhoods – even if they are not classically trained. Good thing we can communicate with audio files these days.”
This mix of musicians prompted classical music expert Greg Sandow to call the project “maverick.” He blogged about his thoughts when he first heard about it: “It didn’t simply combine pop and classical music — that’s been done quite a lot — but also brought together pop and classical musicians. And in a long-term collaboration, not just as a one-shot, like Grizzly Bear playing with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, or Elvis Costello creating The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet.”
“These are local pop musicians, not pop stars famous for all kinds of chops… The style of pop music involved in Liza’s piece is something with fierce local roots in the place where the project is happening. All these things are rare, if not unique. And they give the project a kind of urban energy not always found in pop/classical collaborations.”
Perhaps this brings hope to a classical music industry on the wane due to a stuffy museum like image. At the same time, this new musical alliance may renew respect for go-go music, which for various reasons has felt shoved aside.
The Go-Go Symphony is performing Sept. 28, Oct. 9, and Oct. 12 in the Washington DC area. On Feb. 21, 2014, it will perform with the Capital City Symphony at the Atlas Theater in Washington DC. More shows are likely to be added to the schedule. For more information, visit gogosymphony.com/events.
Liza Figueroa Kravinsky is an award winning composer of film and pop music. After studying music composition at Oberlin College, she worked in the popular music industry, playing keyboards for and collaborating with artists such as Prince and Stacy Lattisaw. In the Washington DC area, she played in go-go bands Trouble Funk and Pleasure. She then settled down to compose music for documentaries, commercials, and corporate video productions. In addition, she became an actress and documentary filmmaker. She has now returned to her roots in classical concert music, armed with the lessons she learned in the streets; hence her creation of the go-go symphony. For more information on performances and other news, visit gogosymphony.com.